Hillbilly Elegy: because the solutions to our problems begin with us

Thursday, September 8, 2016

In his New York Times bestselling Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance examines the world of "poor, white Americans" through a very personal lens: his own. Now a major author with a Yale Law School degree and excellent job, a husband to a beautiful wife, a man with a home and two dogs, Vance was also the child of a five-times married, often radically behaved, addicted mother who moved Vance from home to home and raised him within a culture of violent self defense and trauma.

How Vance became a cultural emigrant, as he puts it, is a major part of the story here. But Vance is also deeply interested in understanding what is possible, still, for the community that gave him his roots. He is focused on the relationships (with his sister, his grandparents, his aunt, the Marines, his professors, his Usha) that rescued and sustained him. The opportunities he was given and the legacies he'll always carry forward. He's interested in setting aside easy excuses so that others might fulfill a greater purpose.

The prose is straightforward, and that works perfectly here. The self reckoning is credible, generous. The lessons are important, especially in this election year. Vance is not an apologist. He is not a condemner, either. Yes, Vance, admits, he was helped by schools and grants and outreach. But mostly he was helped by his gun-toting, loud-cursing grandmother who loved him in steep ways and gave him a centering place during raucous teen years.

Who we are as people, Vance argues, reflects the ways in which we have been cared for. That caring begins not with a law, not with a sentence, not with rules and regulations, but with a sense of personal responsibility for the generation of now, the generation of tomorrow. We build our communities person by person, and while candidates matter, while institutions can help, none of it will reach anyone who has not, in some way, been seen or loved.

Here he is, toward the end:

I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother. We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister's honor. But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.
See. Love. Bluster can't save us. Kindness can.


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